Welcome to WritersInk's latest help topic: ALLEGORY Our editorials and help topics will discuss issues which affect writers generally, as well as dA Lit specifically. All of which is to help you become a better writer.
What is Allegory?
Let’s look at what allegory means. Dictionary.com tells us that it is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.
But what does this mean? Essentially, allegory is the telling of two stories in one. There is a an obvious “basic story”, but also a “deeper meaning”, a secondary story, sometimes referred to as “subtext”, or “underlying commentary”.
Symbolism is often a key feature, where a particular object, colour, person, or place can be used to represent a key element in the story. A simple example of this is in Star Wars where Luke wears light colours and Darth Vader wears dark colours to symbolise good versus evil.
Another good point to note is that allegory need not always be obvious, and the underlying commentary doesn’t have to be directly related to the basic story, in fact it can even contradict it. An example of this is George Orwell’s 1984, in which the story seeks to illustrate and condemn the oppression of communism and totalitarianism, yet the story ends with the protagonist having embraced this regime.
Allegory aims to tell a story that is entertaining and memorable, like any other tale, but to also use symbols to teach its reader something deeper; a lesson or skill about life.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
One of the most well-known examples of the use of allegory is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. There are a number of renditions of the story online which you can look up if you are not already familiar with the tale. You can also watch this animated version below.
So what is this story trying to tell us? First let’s look at the basic story, the surface tale that we are presented with.
The Allegory of the Cave is a story about a group of people who have lived their entire lives in a cave, unable to see what is around them. One of the prisoners is then released and taken outside to view the world beyond. Although he is first stunned by this revelation that the world he knew was incorrect, he comes to accept it, and goes back to the cave to tell the others of his discovery. Having not seen what he has seen, the other prisoners do not believe the man, and think instead that he has either gone mad or is lying to them. They come to the conclusion that leaving the cave is a bad thing, as it only leads to corruption or insanity.
This is a rather simple tale, but now let’s look at the deeper meaning behind those words.
The people in the cave are symbolic of humanity, and the cave itself of humanity’s narrow view of the world, dictated by what is immediately in front of us. The people are the unenlightened masses, who see only that which is before them, and accept it as reality. The freed prisoner symbolises the “enlightened philosopher” who has journeyed further, and thus seen more, than the people left behind. In this instance, the term “philosopher” can apply to any free-thinking individual who breaks away from society’s accepted worldview.
The real crux comes when the philosopher decides to return and share his knowledge. The reaction of the cave people is representative of the tendency of humanity to reject that which they cannot immediately understand or explain, or which challenges the accepted worldview. While one person was able to pull away and see things differently, society as a whole clings to that which is safe and proven, choosing to discard or destroy anything which challenges the security of that belief or system.
Plato used this story as a way of illustrating one of humanity’s shortcomings; their unwillingness to accept ideas which bring into question the foundations of society. But it also illustrates one of humanity’s strengths, the ability of an individual to rise up above their peers and discover new information and ideas.
Many people think that allegory is a difficult, or rarely used literary tool, but it isn’t. In fact, you may be far more familiar with the use of allegory than you realised. You were probably first introduced to this literary form as a child, when you read stories, or watched movies, based on fairy tales.
Fairy tales were designed as a way to teach people important lessons. When a lot of people couldn’t read or write, they would gather around a story teller, who would recount various fables. The fantastical nature of these stories made them memorable, and so they were passed on. However, their true purpose was not just to entertain, but to instruct. Although initially intended for adults, fairy tales evolved as a colourful means of passing important life lessons onto children. Below are a few well-known tales and their deeper meanings.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf - Don’t tell lies, otherwise when you tell the truth no one will believe you.
The Emperor’s New Clothes - Saying things you don’t believe, simply to fit in or appease someone, will only make you look like a fool.
The Gingerbread Man - No matter how fast or clever you are, there may be someone who is faster and cleverer, and there can be only one winner.
Little Red Hen - In order to share in the rewards, you have to do the hard labour first.
The Beauty and the Beast - Do not judge people by appearances, it is a person’s inner beauty that really matters.
Please note, that all fairy tales have multiple renditions, and are often adapted to suit certain eras or audiences. The above is only one interpretation of each of the tales, there are many others.
Think of a fairy tale, fable, or other children’s story (even a movie), and try to guess at the subtext. You can even offer a different interpretation of one of the tales listed above.
Leave a comment below with the story you have picked and what you think its deeper meaning is.
Remember! There are no wrong answers. A story’s lesson is only as good as your understanding of it, so any and all interpretations are welcome.
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It would be a rather morally and philosophically dry story if there was no allegory. In my journal [Art of Philosophers] I also explained that sometimes authors do not plan allegories in the story because there is no need to.
Although people would argue it, J.R.R. Tolkien's works are very often perceived as allegories of the industrial revolution and the corruption of man over nature. Tolkien himself (respectfully) stated he had never made any intent of this and he never saw his works as allegory. But like anything else, he stood back and let people view his work as they saw fit.
Allegory does not necessarily have to be intentional, and in my opinion it is incredibly hard to not have something. But this contest has been crafted with that in mind.
Should we, as readers and/or writers, differentiate between strong, intentional allegory, and the kind of allegory that seems to be other people reading into the work and coming up with their own ideas (such as the Tolkien example)?
Not beyond distinguishing between intent and accident. People pestered Tolkien a lot about his supposedly profound allegories, and he'd have not likely made a fuss of it had people not continuously questioned him on it.
It is important that we keep in mind when an authors means to place allegory (and whether our perceptions of that allegory are the only possible interpretation) and when they don't.
Fairy tales are good examples, and although most aren't direct allegories, they are dripping with symbolism. For example, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is most certainly not a literal wolf. I find Hansel and Gretel to be particularly disturbing, seeing as the witch and the stepmother were metaphorically the same person, at least in my interpretation. The abuse those kids went through was much deeper than abandonment.
(Also, Thomas Foster's book "How to Read Literature like a Professor" is an excellent tool for analyzing literature without losing the fun of reading.)
H.G. Wells, H.G. Wells, H.G. Wells! I've always thought his sci fi stands apart from other sci fi because of it's fable like narrative style. For example, The Time Machine's scenario is about a world where class differences are so rampant that the lower class and upper class have evolved into different species. The story makes it obvious that Wells sees this scenario as a very negative thing and class difference as therefore a prominent problem in his society that needed attention and solution. Pretty much all of his novels work with allegory to target a political, social, or personal conflict.
It's been a while, but the main theme to analyze is the fact that the story is about a man in the middle of his life (reaching a mid-life crisis) being guided through the three realms of the afterlife, (Hell, purgatory and Paradise) and being explained the process of punishment, repent and being rewarded for their lives.
The allegory could be that it is the journey of man facing his sins and "finding god", in both the literal and the figurative form.
accepting the rule of god, finding peace with one self. Walking through hell, which can also represent life as well
Purgatory is to ask forgiveness and pay for the sins they have committed.
Then they are able to enter heaven, but also live life in a pure form.
One of my personal favourites, 'Snow White and Rose Red' (German fairy tale, was later collected by the Brothers Grimm) springs to mind. "Goodness and honesty will be rewarded, while rudeness and greed gets you nowhere" or alternatively, "don't judge a book by it's cover" (my own preferred reading)
Great example. Grimms fairy tales are all really good for finding underlying commentary. I just uncovered a really old book filled with them. Had to recover it (poor thing was falling apart) but I'm looking forward to reading through it.
P.S. Thanks for this! I remember pretty much loathing allegory in HS because they made us read Animal Farm by Orwell, which is far less enjoyable than 1984...I mean, even the Patrick Stewart couldn't save the film version for me.
I had a similar experience! In middle school we were introduced o allegory through Animal Farm, but the way they did it spoiled the book and made allegory a chore. I think without the overhauled examination of the book's symbolism prior to us actually reading it, the novel would have made for a better read. (1984 is vastly superior in any case, though)
I had to read The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. Apparently it's about youth and innocence. Honestly, I was so busy hating on Holden that I completely missed the message. That kid needed a good slap. So, I understand where you're coming from. The most successful stories are the ones that are engaging for their readers and that find a way to resonate with their audience for years (centuries in some cases, or even more for ones like Plato) after they were written.
300 (the film) comes to mind. Aside from all the crazy (awesome) bloodshed and (ridiculous) machoism, the basis of the story is a group of people willing to defend their way of life (the soldiers and Leonidas), even when their way of life makes that difficult (the senate and corrupt politicians). They are more concerned with preserving their right to self-governance, even if it is flawed, than with living a long life, which is an allegory for the ideals of freedom and autonomy.
"You want to rule us, you say? Make our women prostitutes, you say? Make our children work in sweat-shops making Nikes, you say?"
"GET THE FUCK OFF OUR LAND!"
Political allegories and stories tend to be very profound, because the subject itself is extremely important to people, for understandable reasons. The same goes with ethics, since it directly ties to philosophy which is the core of allegorical thought.
THIS IS SPARTA! Great example. The Spartans fought against overwhelming odds to defend their homes and their freedom. The movie deviates (a lot) from the original story, but it still keeps that underlying idea.
In one of the Grimm stories, "The Juniper Tree", the stepmother is depicted as having been manipulated by the Devil to kill her stepchild. The stepchild, a young boy born from a drop of blood that fell into the snow, is seen as a gift from God. He is transformed after his decapitation into a beautiful golden bird who sings so beautifully it inspires all who hear his song to give him aid. By the end of the story, the stepmother has been crushed to death by a millstone, obtained after the bird sings to a miller and proceeds to lure his family out by offering gifts. To his father, who unknowingly cannibalized his supernatural offspring after the stepmother cooked the body into a stew, the bird gave him a gold chain. To his stepsister Marlene, who was tricked by her own mother, the stepmother, into thinking she had killed the boy, the bird gave a pair of bright red slippers. To the mother the bird bestowed a heavy rock full of death.
The story is an allegory to the difficulties of childrearing. In the beginning, the original mother dies during childbirth, having spent her entire duration in the story pinning for a child. The father, ineffectual and oblivious to the schemes of those around him, depicts the ordinary and reluctant parent. The stepmother, among the most active characters in this entire fairy tale, is characterized by the taboo emotions of hatred and alienation for one's own children. She represents, in place of the weaker original mother, a more displaced figure for storytellers to place the blame on. She performs all the dirty work of feeling the full, unrepressed brunt of the painful human emotions regarding family: frustration, alienation, being taken for granted, even disavowing God after having killed the child. She goes to hell at the end of the story. Full of the negative emotions that accompany the work of raising a child, she becomes a straw doll for the audience to burn, to place all the blame on. While the father and the daughter are rewarded for their piety and their victimhood, the mother is swallowed up by the same forces that pushed her forward.
Wow, that's so detailed, awesome work! That's a great example of how people can be pushed into doing bad things by bad situations, but also that something things aren't your fault or are outside of your control.
And as towards your point, I wholeheartedly agree. The fairy tale seems to state that even with the best intentions (wanting a family, wanting someone you love to be happy, wanting to feel better about a situation beyond controlling) we can find ourselves receiving, or doling out, hugely preventable hardships. There is a choice in dealing with the painful and the insufferable: either to hold still and last it out, or to actively do something about it. Neither choice is inherently better and sometimes doing either results in similarly undesirable consequences. The problem isn't that you chose wrong, but that you never had a say to begin with.
But that goes into fate versus free will and "The Juniper Tree" is more about good versus evil. There's not an awful lot it offers on the issue of morality. The good are rewarded, even when they do nothing to help themselves. The evil are punished, even when what they were doing could be seen as a symptom of a larger problem beyond their control.
Perhaps the moral then, is that even forgiveness has its limits. Whilst the sister and father were forgiven their mistakes, the stepmother's actions were too big to overlook, regardless of the situation that drove her towards them. Perhaps this is how the story chooses to define "evil", as someone whose actions have gone beyond redemption.
For Guardians of Childhood, children are the most precious and valuable treasure humanity has, more than diamonds or gold. We need to protect them, not just for their safety, but for their innocence and imaginations. We need to encourage their creativity, support their dreams, guide their morals, so they will grow up to be good and kind people. And what better way to do that than by telling them wondrous stories like GoC!
Thanks for the info about allegory. I really tried to write short allegories but failed miserably And I could only think about the movie "Mulan" which shows that being a woman doesn't stop you to save your country, as well it mirrors how women are seen and treated in the past (not only in China but in the whole world before)